Working mothers’ investigation is one way to peer into a blinding array of changes, which burst upon the American culture about four decades ago. Significantly, the analysis of working mothers may be looked at as a filter, to continue the analogy, in the manner in which the moon or some other artificial construct is used to eclipse the otherwise overwhelming, dazzling rays of the sun to view the usually hidden, yet remarkable, corona and other solar prominences. Thus, the use of “working mothers” may be likened to a moon or object used to “see” through the obscuring and dazzling change in American culture (the sun) to investigate the American family (the corona). To carry the analogy just one more logical step, one may ask, “why?”
“Why?” To understand the mechanics of the sun, we utilized the filter (natural, eclipse; or artificial, an eclipse object) to see the corona. In fact, the corona and other solar prominences, impressive of themselves, gain further significance when an appropriate hypothesis is proposed, which then link as causal the increased corona activity to its debilitating interference to high altitude terrestrial communication systems. Straightforwardly, a look at working mothers can reveal much against the backdrop of American family change to support a hypothesis that the American family has shown a decline, in part attributable to working mothers and with attendant manifestations of behavioral problems to the child.
Benchmarking Family Change
Many Americans in 1960 would say, in my estimation, “The family should consist of a husband and a wife living together with their children. The father should be the head of the family, earn the family’s income, and give his name to his children and perhaps to his wife. The mother should support and facilitate her husband, guide the children’s development, maintain the household, and set a moral tone for the family home. Marriage should be an enduring obligation, in part to maintain strong ties with the children and their development”. Whether or not this idealized form of the family and roles with the family ever existed, as the traditional family is, obviously, debatable. However, judging from television, movies, and written media of the “’50s, 60’s, and maybe early 70’s” this version of the ideal or traditional family did exist and was projected as an American standard. What changed? One way to answer this question is to look at contemporary family realities. Today we find:
- Many families can not afford the basic necessities of life on one salary;
- Over one-third of US children under age 18 live in “nontraditional families” with nontraditional defined as families that do not have both a father and mother living in the home;
- Children in single-parent families are more likely to live in poverty and to suffer adverse outcomes associated with poverty;
- Over 60% of poor children who live with their mothers and whose fathers live outside the home do not receive child support;
- Children without involved fathers exhibit more behavioral problems;
- Women are at least twice as likely as men to experience a major depressive episode within a lifetime. Depression for single or single-working women compounds problems of childcare.
Although other changes to this profile exits, the above profile of the changing family does show correlative, negative links between women and children in today’s environments, particularly with respect to a woman’s lessening economic power and loss of positives in caring for her children’s development compared to whatever did exist as a “traditional” family four decades ago. Therefore, it is this link that an early insight may be gleaned regarding the possible adverse effects of working mothers on children’s immediate behavioral development. The larger negative collective impact leading to what I propose is the declining American family reality today.
Why Do Women Work Outside the Home?
Posing the question this way places in perspective the fact that, for many women, work and career questions may come to mind before a woman ever considers the problem of working outside the home as a mother.
About thirty-five years ago, the women’s liberation movement raised the hopes and expectations of a generation of women. This movement challenged the notion that women were supposed to spend their entire lives engaged in housework and raising children. It demanded equal pay for women in the workplace, publicly funded childcare, and the legalization of abortion. It challenged women’s sexist stereotypes and the traditional nuclear family’s ideal, which often tied women to abusive or oppressive relationships.
While the Ozzie and Harriet myth of the nuclear family – with a male breadwinner and stay-at-home mother never really existed for many working-class Americans, the women’s liberation movement altered people’s ideas about women’s role in society on a mass scale (Roesch, 2004).
Today, both the ideological and material gains of the women’s movement have come under sustained attack. The intent of all of this is to convince us that the institutional barriers that women faced in the past have been broken down (or at least mitigated) and replaced by a set of individual choices that they may pursue.
Jen Roesch, in her article, stated as one woman put it, “Women today, if we think about feminism at all, we see it as a battle fought for ‘the choices.’ For us, the freedom to choose work if we want to work is the feminism strain in our lives” (Roesch, 2004). The value of this notion to employers and politicians cannot be underestimated. It allows them to reframe the question of women’s equality as one of personal achievement rather than institutional change.
But the problem with today’s confusing choices for women and the suggestion that they are returning to the home is that the facts do not support this contention. Instead, just the opposite is true. Women, including mothers, are doing the opposite; they work longer and harder than ever before. In 2003, 78% percent of women with school-aged children, 59% of women with children under the age of five, and 54 percent of women with infants worked for pay (Roesch, 2004).
Concluding this thought in the article, as mentioned above, Roesch says, “Clearly, women are not heading home and for a straightforward reason. Far from the idea that women working outside the home for pay are a matter of individual preference, most women work because they must”.
In an era of increasing job insecurity and economic precariousness, 30 percent of working women make all or almost all of their family’s income, and 60 percent earn half or more of their family’s income. Women’s wages are not pocket change or disposable earnings that could be done without if only families would eat at home, as some of the back-to-home crusaders argue. Women’s wages have become increasingly crucial to families’ ability to stay afloat. The reading bears out this choice/no-choice dilemma facing women regarding role, career, and, especially for mothers and mothers who must work, the impact this choice will have on the children. A blatant cry for reviving a “traditional women’s role” often recast as an admiration of mother-head rather than that of the dependent wife (Stinnett, N. et al., 1979). Gerson, 1985 talked about women’s “Hard choices” between career and family.
The “second shift” of outside work has placed a different “time bind” on women, especially for the working mother who must also do all or most of the “first shift” household and mothering duties. Economic necessity, rather than a simple choice, is why many, if not most, women work outside the home. Thus it is especially true of single moms. If the family is to survive, she must provide for the living. Even in those homes where the husband is the primary breadwinner, the economic pressures are very significant. Sometimes wives can stay at home because a husband takes two jobs. That is not always an ideal situation. For one thing, the husband may endanger his health. For another, the quality of his relationship with his wife and his children is often significantly reduced. For another, the quality of his relationship with his immediate family as a whole often suffers (in my opinion).
There is little to dispute the claim that women are vital to the workplace and the home. Sadly, in my opinion, the nuclear family as an economic unit is essential to the operation of American capitalism. Under the current system, employers pay workers a salary or wage but take virtually no responsibility for most of the social costs of maintaining the current generation of workers or raising the next generation of workers into adulthood. Rather than these responsibilities being shared collectively by society as a whole through government programs, paid for by taxing the profits of the private enterprises that employ workers, they are shouldered by individual families. Within the family, it is primarily women expected to perform the unpaid domestic labor of raising children, cooking, housework, and mainly health care (Roesch, 2004).
The economic structure of a changing national and increasingly global working environment makes it more arduous to meet a single income’s basic needs. Although generalized, it would appear to be true that costs are increasing faster than incomes for larger and larger segments of the population. This, in turn, puts tremendous economic pressure on the wage or salary earner’s financial resources, especially if he or she is a single parent.
We are not talking about economic scaling back that trivializes the use of discretionary income for luxury, nor are we speaking about increasingly difficult financial choices on such basics as food, clothing, shelter, and health care issues. Often these cost items must be forgone or periodically skipped due to cost. The bottom line may be that women often work outside the home now to provide a comfortable life and material needs that would not otherwise be attainable (Bond et al., 1999).
A study by Stinnett N. and his associates in the 1980’s seemed to find a benefit in reduced stress-related illness and depression for professional working-women than homemakers. Much of the more recent literature appears to either contradict this “benefit” or focus on new problems for working women, especially mothers, and even more so for single moms.
Positive Effects of Working Mothers on the Family
Studies have shown that mothers who work outside the home cause no harm to their children. However, these are not in the majority. Some studies correlate early center-based childcare and negative behavior for children. Often studies report positive outcomes. This suggests, in my opinion, that other variables must be considered and may not be the sole factor for children’s behavioral problems in cases where the mother is compelled to work (as in many single-mother families).
Other factors that appear to influence negative children’s behaviors concerning caretaking may include irregular or inflexible schedules, too long in a caretaker’s care, or negative effect on the mom of poor health, poverty, and lack of autonomy, or paucity of outside support. So, it is not so much the work status of a parent in a sense that becomes the critical detriment for a child’s development as is the relative importance of having a supportive home environment with a loving parent or another adult along with the avoidance of the negative consequences of poverty. Poverty equates to a wide range of problems leading to child development issues and negative behaviors.
Numerous studies have suggested that strong, long-lasting influences on the positive development of children’s behavior in center-based childcare are possible if the quality of care is high and the hours spent in care are not excessively long. Many prominent scholars in this field have articulated this point by saying, “A major policy implication of these findings is that universal, high quality, center-based care seems likely to be beneficial to all types of participating children” (Hill, Waldfogel, & Brooks-Gunn, 2002, p.622).
The “Downside” of Being a Working Mother
Particularly for single-parent working mothers and any woman, it appears that capitalism as practice in the United States today relies heavily on the unpaid labor of women within the home. The single-parent working mother gets hit doubly hard within this reality as women are generally paid less and still do more, regardless of marital status, in parenting children. In 1995, the United Nations Development Program reported that women’s unpaid and underpaid labor (annually) represented $11 trillion worldwide and $1.4 trillion in the United States alone (Albelda, 2002).
This is obviously a price that individual bosses and governments are not willing to pay. As I view them, the costs are inequitably passed along to those least able to pay (single-working mothers). The negative consequences of the feminization of poverty are reflected in our children’s increasing incidences of behavioral problems.
Consider these study results (US Census Bureau):
- Women still earn $.76 to a man’s dollar.
- The $ .76 represents a 1.4 percent decline as computed in 1995.
- The gap in pay over thirty years has narrowed; however, this is better explained not by women’s gains but by falling wages for men.
- Taking this decline into account over the last fifteen years, women averaged $.38 for each dollar earned by men.
This study more accurately measures the impact of women’s oppression because it takes into account the cumulative effect on women’s earnings from having to balance work and family. These data highlight one of the leading social problems in American society: the government’s inability to protect women with children shows that women do it by themselves, meaning that they carry the burden of upbringing their offspring.
For instance, data indicates that the United States, an industrialized country, has no program or system in place for paid parental leave or subsidized childcare. Further, data suggest that there are paid parental leave programs in approximately twenty-nine industrialized nations. The paid leave averaged about thirty-six weeks. The comparison with the situation faced by new mothers in the United States is stunning.
When the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was passed in 1993, it was the first legislation of any kind that even guaranteed unpaid leave. It was revised in 2013 and April 2016, although the February 2013 version still fulfills the posting requirement in a visible location where all workers and people seeking employment can visually see it. It offers a mere twelve weeks of unpaid leave, and 45% of private businesses are not even covered by it (Institute for Research Policy). But many women who are covered but FMLA cannot afford to take unpaid time off.
According to the FMLA’s statistics, there were 3.5 million workers in the year 2000 alone that had access to unpaid leave but could not take it. Of those, 77% cited lack of money as the reason, and another one-third said they feared they would lose their jobs.
Hourly workers and divorced single women were disproportionately represented among those unable to take advantage of unpaid leave (The Family Medical Leave Survey 2000 update). Wave after wave of recession and decades of attacks on living standards have taken their toll on working-class families’ incomes. In contrast, every cutback in essential social services has corresponded to a new demand for the individual family to take on more responsibility. These problems are amplified and exacerbated for the single parent working mother.
The Single Parent Working Mother: Hardship
Let us consider the increased responsibility because of recent changes. The negative effect will be worse on the family consisting of a single-parent, working mother, with funding cuts and overcrowding, parents have been asked to fill the gaps caused by lessening numbers of teachers per student and cuts in items (such as school supplies) once covered by the government. More time is required of the parent (s) in homework and fundraisers. Parents are pressured into assisting in school activities at the risk of not seeming concerned about their children’s welfare and otherwise being blamed for failing test scores.
This is particularly galling because it comes at a time when women are working longer than ever and struggling to stay afloat. Women are concentrated in low-wage industries and part-time work. They make up 60 % of minimum-wage workers and are also the most vulnerable when jobs are cut or health care disaster strikes. Most states do not provide unemployment benefits for part-time workers, while women make two-third of the part-time workforce. The unemployment rate as of 2002 was 8.8 % for female-headed households. Between one-quarter and one-half of women earning less than $40,000 a year lacked primary benefits (Ask a Working Women Survey Report; AFL-CIO, 2004).
The statistics on women and children in poverty are staggering:
- Of all female-headed households in the United States, 30% live in poverty.
- One-third of all children and 40% of children under five live in low-income families, defined as the poverty rate.
- One in five children are growing up beneath the poverty level, and 42% of those are living in extreme poverty, defined in 1998 as less than $6,500/year for a family of three.
- One in seven children has no health insurance, even though 90 percent of these children have working parents.
- One out of every six households with children is food insecure, and thirteen million children do not know where their next meal is coming from.
- Thirty percent of near-poor families experience at least one critical hardship (missing meals, eviction, inability to find housing, and the lack of necessary health care).
- Seventy-two percent of near-poor families experience at least one severe hardship (missed rent or mortgage payment, reliance on the emergency room for primary medical care, and inadequate childcare arrangements.
- Families with children make up nearly 40 % of the homeless population.
In December 2019, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2018, 57.1 percent of all women participated in the labor force. This was about the same as the 57.0 percent who participated in 2017, and still about three percentage points below the peak of 60.0 percent in 1999. The labor market continues to witness a swift increase of women in the labor force, and this change has been occurring since the second half of the 20th century. Women’s participation in the labor market has tremendously changed in various conspicuous ways over sixty years.
For instance, many women desired to pursue higher education, and their number quadrupled. This rapid increase is seen in women between the ages of 24 and 64 years, and this trend began around 1970 to now. While at the same time, men with a college degree almost doubled with the same period.
It is evident that women today play a critical role in both the workplace and at home with the family. It is believed that the rapid change of the American family is a reflection of the ongoing transformation of the lives of women who enter the workforce and work longer hours to make ends meet.
Because of the increases in the number of divorces, or by fathering children outside of marriage, or by single-parenting choice, at times, the number of women as heads of households has tremendously increased. It’s quite clear that working gives and provides, at times, a degree of financial security, self-worth, confidence, and independence for a woman; however, when she is the leading figure in a family, the overall household income available to women is lowered. From his perspective, Casner-Lotto (2000) called or labeled this effect the “feminization of poverty.”
The Single Parent Working Mother: Neglect
It is tough to dispute that those mothers who work simply are not there for their children as those whose role is a full-time caregiver and household leader.
In fact, the relationship between the contemporary single parent, working mother, and her children takes on a degree of familiarity and comparison to the father’s older traditional role and his relationship to the children.
Often today, the mother is compelled to become the strong-minded disciplinarian in the evening or after work, often not much more than that. To many preadolescent youths, care is either a babysitter or nanny and maybe only a phone call to mom after work.
In more positive situations, this separation may create an early sense of responsibility and maturity for the child. More commonly, though, this care set up is known to invite poor behavior such as recklessness, accidents, and rebellious. Regardless of the behavior type, children of all kinds encounter attachment problems with their primary caretaker and precisely experience a loving relationship with their mother (Williams, 1999).
It is not that these negatives have gone unnoticed. The literature now shows an ever-increasing awareness of the attendant problems to children’s development and behavior (Heymann, 2000; Cohen et al., 1999; and Eaton, 2003). A study by Aragona & Eyeberg in this recent timeframe asserts that with regards to interpersonal signals, today’s working mothers are unlikely to respond to child signals and more likely to initiate spontaneously non-reciprocal types of interaction, such as requests and demands.
The literature strongly convinces me that mothers who work all day become almost unavoidably neglectful in that they fail to perceive, attend to, and responsibly and effectively interpret their child’s signals and miss a great deal about their children’s needs.
Conclusion and Discussion
The American middle-class family is often classified as a “nuclear family system.” The nuclear family is not a generic or universal type of family system. The most basic family life unit is generally considered the mother and her offspring, which is sometimes called “the elementary family.”
Though economic globalization is making it increasingly common throughout the world, it is essential to remember that the nuclear family is far from a universal type of social organization. Nuclear families are units of a couple and their offspring. The nuclear family’s normative and idealized form is a monogamous, heterosexual couple and their offspring. While this is still the model family type in the US, we are experiencing a considerable variation in the American nuclear family constitution.
When viewed in this perspective, the focus of “mother” as “the elementary family” is a deviation from the nuclear family, and her role as a working mother with her absence from her children can be seen as a form of “neglect.” That this neglect manifests early childhood behavioral problems or disruptive developmental patterns seems incontestable. Together, the working-mother and children’s behavioral issues provide a considerable measure, in my estimation, of the causative link, which then enables us to label, define, and measure family (traditional or nuclear) decline.
Before the mother became a working-mother outside the home, children were almost pampered by their primary caretaker’s (mothers) presence. All the attention that they needed or demanded was ever-present. A strong dependency on the mother was created. The relationship between mother and child was more often more familiar and more substantial than that experienced today with the working-mother and children.
There is a tremendous increase in the number of single-parent families in the United States. Financial pressure and childcare issues are the primary concerns of single parents, particularly for single working mothers. Further research and investigation should be directed to ascertain what measures may need to be introduced into the American workplace, community, and home to address these alarming growing trends.
Based on the aforementioned statistical data of the matter at hand, I found it quite troublesome to put most of the blame on the mother and especially working mothers for their inability to develop and maintain healthy family relationships with their young ones as kindly and tenaciously as they did a century ago or even a decades ago.
The pressure of a full-time job or career couple with full-time mothering may be so overwhelming for one person to manage adequately fully. For this reason, quality and reliable childcare are so essential to work mothers, particularly for single working mothers. For this basis and the increased separation of mother and child, we now experience the adverse and previously unforeseen harmful effects of this separation in terms of neglect. The negative combined consequence is part of what I tenaciously believe defines “family decline” and perhaps the loss of what was once the typical American family.
*Dr. Mustapha Kulungu is the Principal Researcher at the ILM Foundation Institute of Los Angeles, California. He graduated from Fielding Graduate University, Santa Barbara, California.
Aragon, J., & Eyeberg, S. “Neglected Children: Mothers’ report of child behavior problems and observed verbal behavior.” Child Development 52 (1981): 596-602.
“Ask A Working Survey Report,” 2004, AFL-CIO. www.bls.gov/news.release/_famee.toc.htm. Accessed on August 30, 2005
Casner-Lotto, J. (2000). Holding a Job, Having a Life: Strategies for Change. Scarsdale, NY: Work in America Institute, Inc.
Cohen, P. N., and Bianchi, S. M. (1999). “Marriage, Children, and Women’s Employment: What Do We Know?” Monthly Labor Review, December 24–30.
Eaton, S. (2003). If you can use them: Flexibility policies, organizational commitment, and perceived performance. Industrial Relations. 42: 145-167.
Gerson, K. (1985). Hard Choices: How Women Decide About Work, Career, and Motherhood. Berkeley, University of California Press.
Heymann, J. (2000). The Widening Gap: Why America’s Working Families Are in Jeopardy and What Can Be Done About It. New York: Basic Books.
Hill, J., Waldfogel, J., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2002). Differential effects of high-quality childcare. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 21 94), 601-627.
Jen Roesch. “Women, Work, and Family Today.” International Socialist Review issue 38, November-December 2004. www.isreview.org/issue/38/women_family Retrieved on September 1, 2005.
Randy Albelda, “Under the Margins: Feminist Economists Look at Gender and Poverty,” Dollars & Sense. Issue 243, September/October 2002. www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2002/0902toc.htm
Stephen J. Rose & Heidi Hartmann, “Still A Man’s Labor Market: The Long-Term Earnings Gap,” a report of a study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, June 2004. www.iwpr.org/pdf/C355.pdf. Accessed on September 10, 2005
Stinnett, N., et al. (Eds.). (1979). Building family strengths: Blueprints for action. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Stinnett, N., et al. (Eds.). (1980). Family strengths: Positive models for family life. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
The Institute for Women’s Policy Research “Paid Family & Medical Leave: Supporting Women’s Families in Illinois,” www.iwpr.org/pdf Accessed on August 30, 2005.
Williams, J. (1999). Unbending Gender: Why Work and Family Conflict and What to Do About It. New York: Oxford University Press.
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